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Harmon: Utah Polynesian football stars react to Junior Seau's death

By Dick Harmon

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 3 2012 2:08 p.m. MDT

San Diego Chargers former player Junior Seau during his induction into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at half time of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 in San Diego.

File, Associated Press

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Junior Seau represented something to Polynesian youths. He was an icon.

The apparent suicide of the former All-Pro NFL linebacker shocked and saddened many football players in the Samoan and Tongan communities of Utah. They followed his career. He inspired them, and because he played with such passion, he allowed them all to dream.

"Was he a guy we looked up to?" asked former Philadelphia Eagles running back Reno Mahe. "Yes! Why? He was a guy you looked up to all those years because he made it. He had talent, worked hard and made the best of all his opportunity. It's sad to think about how young he was and what led to this, but I'm gonna just focus and think about all the great things he did while he was here: the example on the field and the smile that he always had."

Seau's death has opened the door for much discussion about the life of football players who made it through careers in the NFL. Seau apparently took his own life just a week after the NFL Draft, a time when the game receives tons of exposure and attention.

Some experts question the safety of the game and emphasize there is a lot we do not know about this sport, in particular what happens to the brain from constant impact through a helmet and the accompanying issues with chronic traumatic brain injury, depression, irritability and memory problems.

If those questions are answered, perhaps something good can come from Seau's death.

"He was not only a great football player but one of the best to ever do it," said former Minnesota Viking Fahu Tahi.

"He was a stud. On and off the field he was huge for the Polynesian community. He is who I grew up watching and wanting to be like, not just because he was the best Polynesian player."

Former Cincinnati Bengals running back Fui Vakapuna said he could not believe it and was surprised and humbled by Seau's death. "Words cannot express how I feel."

Vakapuna had the opportunity to share his feelings about Jesus Christ and hope and faith to the Seau family when he served as an LDS missionary in Oceanside, Calif., in 2005. He and his Mormon missionary companion were invited to the home of former teammate Vic So'oto, where the Seau family regularly attended barbecues.

"His family is an amazing group of people. His mother is a very beautiful woman and they were wonderful people to get to know. I was privileged to share the gospel message with them on many occasions and I feel blessed to have been able to know them," said Vakapuna.

"Growing up, Junior Seau was a great inspiration to me. I loved the physical way he played the game, and I wanted to be like him. Our prayers are with him and his family at this time. This is a tragedy, and I hope only the best for them during this difficult time."

Dr. Daniel G. Amen, founder and CEO of Amen Clinics Inc., has conducted three studies with 115 active and former NFL players. Each study shows that it is not only possible but likely that with brain-directed health protocol, significant improvement can be made with regard to decision-making, reasoning, depression, mood and memory.

Folks are still learning the effect physical football collisions have on the brain. Many this week wonder if Seau's death came about because of such injuries.

"Junior Seau was a legend," said Amen. "But even legends cannot escape the ravages of chronic brain damage."

Amen says Junior Seau may have damaged his prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making. He also noted Seau was arrested in 2010 for domestic violence, which also may have come from poor decision-making.

"Brain trauma symptoms can appear decades after the playing days and can include dementia, memory loss, violent behavior, obesity, mental illness and depression. And unfortunately, suicide is more common in people who have experienced brain trauma."

I have seen some of these side effects in others, including former BYU and Chicago Bear quarterback Jim McMahon. After suffering many concussions during his career, McMahon told me he has had many problems with headaches and memory since his NFL career.

I don't know what led to Seau's death, which authorities say they consider was due to a self-inflicted gunshot, or suicide.

It is sad.

But it is also a wake-up call for the sport to pay attention to the signs of the times with many of our heroes and superstars who excel at football.

Stardom may come, but at what price?

Junior Seau is dead at the age of 43.

email: dharmon@desnews.com twitter: harmonwrites

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